In the past two decades there have been fears that many low-lying atoll islands around the world could disappear as a consequence of climate change and sea level rise, leading to mass migration and threatening the existence of several island nations. Here we show how sea level rise does not inevitably lead to coastal areas becoming uninhabitable, and that humans have an innate and often underestimated capacity to adapt to changes in their environment. To do so we showcase three instances of human- and earthquake-induced land subsidence that have taken place in the 21st century, where the coastal/island areas are still inhabited despite the challenge of living with higher water levels: the Tohoku coastline following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami (subsidence ∼0.4–1.0 m), the present day situation of coastal areas in Jakarta due to ground water extraction (>5.0 m), and the islands of Tubigon, Bohol in central Philippines after the 2013 Bohol Earthquake (∼1.0 m). Humans are able to adapt and arrive at solutions even when confronted with cases of rapid rises in water levels, and thus it is likely that in the future vulnerable coastlines will be engineered and largely remain at present day locations, particularly in densely populated areas. If anything, around densely populated areas it is more likely that humans will continue to encroach on the sea rather than the reverse. We caution, however, that small islands are not homogeneous, and many are unlikely to respond to rising sea levels in the manner that atolls do (in fact, many might just resort to build at higher elevations). Where engineering and other adaptation responses become necessary, the financial and human resource requirements may well be beyond capacity of some small islands, which could lead to impoverishment and associated challenges in many communities.
Sea-level Rise, Coastal Flooding, and Storm Events
Coastal flooding, already an acute problem in many parts of the world, will be exacerbated in the near future by the sea level rise induced by climate change. The influence of wave farms, i.e., arrays of wave energy converters, on coastal processes, in particular sediment transport patterns, has been analysed in recent works; however, their influence on coastal flooding has not been addressed so far. The objective of this work is to investigate whether a wave farm can provide some protection from flooding on the coast in its lee through a case study: a gravel-dominated beach in southern Spain (Playa Granada). We consider three sea-level rise (SLR) scenarios: the present situation (SLR0), an optimistic projection (SLR1) and a pessimistic projection (SLR2). Two state-of-the-art numerical models, SWAN and XBeach-G, are applied to determine the wave propagation patterns, total run-up and flooded dry beach area. The results indicate that the absorption of wave power by the wave farm affects wave propagation in its lee and, in particular, wave heights, with alongshore-averaged reductions in breaking wave heights about 10% (25%) under westerly (easterly) storms. These lower significant wave heights, in turn, result in alongshore-averaged run-up reductions for the three scenarios, which decreases with increasing SLR values from 5.9% (6.8%) to 1.5% (5.1%) for western (eastern) storms. Importantly, the dry beach area flooded under westerly (easterly) storms is also reduced by 5.7% (3.2%), 3.3% (4.9%) and 1.99% (4.5%) in scenarios SLR0, SLR1 and SLR2, respectively. These findings prove that a wave farm can actually reduce coastal flooding on its leeward coast.
Sea-level change around southern Africa (southern Namibia, South Africa, southern Mozambique) since Termination I has been quantified using a variety of indicators. Existing and new data are reviewed to provide a baseline for future studies and identify key research needs and opportunities in the region. While the southern African records broadly agree with other far-field records, detailed Holocene records present as-yet unresolved discrepancies with glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) model predictions. Two domains, the west coast and east coast are considered. Radiocarbon dated saltmarsh facies and marine shells in life position provide the basis for the west coast sea-level curve back to 9 ka BP. Given the age and elevation uncertainties, a Mid-Holocene highstand of +2 to +4 m is suggested between 7.3 and 6 ka BP, as are several Late Holocene oscillations of <1 m amplitude. On the east coast, fewer data are available for the Mid to Late Holocene (post 7 ka BP) compared to the west, but many submerged indicators are available back to 13 ka BP. Reappraisal of existing data suggests a sea-level curve similar to that of the west coast. In both instances, the resolution of existing sea-level index points is neither sufficient to accurately constrain the magnitude and timing of the peak highstand nor the existence of minor inferred subsequent oscillations. Between 13 and 7 cal ka BP chronological and geomorphological evidence (submerged shoreline complexes) suggest several alternating periods of slow and rapid sea-level change. Despite abundant data, the indicator resolution to quantify these changes remains elusive.
We have assembled a database of Relative Sea Level (RSL) data points from the eastern coast of Canada from Hudson Bay to the border with the USA. In compiling this database we have critically reviewed 1092 radiocarbon dated samples from raised beaches, isolation basins, intertidal and marine deposits, and archaeological indicators to produce 405 sea-level index points and 687 sea-level limiting points. Our comprehensive, systematic, and quality-controlled RSL database allowed for the reconstruction of the postglacial evolution of 34 regions of eastern Canada providing new basin-scale insights into the processes driving RSL changes in the last ∼16 ka. The combination of a database of sea-level index points with an innovative empirical-Bayesian spatio-temporal statistical model provided new insights into rates and magnitude of the spatially-variable glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA), which dominated the postglacial RSL evolution in this sector of North America. A continuous postglacial RSL fall is observed at latitudes ≥ ∼50° N with higher rates (up to 35 mm a−1) recorded in southeastern Hudson Bay. At lower latitudes, the evolution is non-monotonic with RSL that dropped to a spatially variable early-Holocene lowstand, followed by a mid-Holocene highstand and, eventually, a gradual drop to present RSL. This pattern is particularly evident in the St Lawrence corridor. Along the majority of the Newfoundland, New Brunswick and western Nova Scotia coasts, a late-Pleistocene/early-Holocene RSL lowstand was followed by a continuous rise through the Holocene. At the margin of the former ice-sheet (i.e. eastern Nova Scotia), our data identify a continuous RSL rise through the Holocene. These records are characterized by decreasing rates of RSL rise through time, commencing with a rapid rise during the early Holocene (up to ∼17 mm a−1), a slowdown in the mid-Holocene (average rates ≤ ∼9 mm a−1), and a further reduction in the late Holocene (average rates < 2 mm a−1). Finally, our database allowed the identification of regions, including the Labrador coast and part of the St Lawrence corridor, where further investigations are required to better constrain the RSL evolution and improve our ability to assess the variability of RSL histories.
The location and stability of low-lying carbonated reef islands are closely related to wave refraction over reef platforms, which create low energy wave convergence zones favorable for sediment deposition. Although there is great concern about the stability of reef islands in future decades, few studies have attempted to assess the effects of sea-level rise on wave refraction patterns and the migration of wave convergence zones, which may promote changes in island positions. To investigate the mechanisms of wave refraction over a shallow lagoon atoll (Rocas Atoll), we performed a detailed topo-bathymetric survey to simulate wave propagation for different water levels and wave conditions considering the complex atoll morphology. Our results show that the locations of convergence zones are not only influenced by wave direction and wave interactions with the elliptical reef shape but also controlled by topographic variations in the reef structure. In particular, the presence of a wide reef passage on the leeward margin of Rocas Atoll has an important role in the atoll wave refraction pattern. Model simulations show a displacement of the wave convergence zone and increase in wave energy under increased sea level. However, the direction of this displacement is more sensitive to the incident wave period than to the wave direction due to topographic control. Swell waves, either from the north or south, tend to move the convergence zone lagoonwards, whereas wind waves tend to move this zone seawards. Thus, the results suggest that, under sea-level rise scenarios, areas prone to sediment accumulation will become less stable. The relative frequency between swell and wind wave incidence will be an important driver of morphological change patterns in reef islands.
Previous studies have found that vegetated coastal areas can increase their elevation indicating resilience to inundation by sea level rise (SLR), but the potential resilience were ignored or showed controversial results (i.e., soil accretion of vegetated areas vs. SLR). To estimate the resilience influences on 15 islands in Florida Bay (Florida, U.S.), our study used indicators (areas of the 15 islands and their mangrove forests) by analyzing 61-yr high-resolution historical aerial photographs and a 27-yr time-series of Landsat images. In these islands, coastal fringes are dominated by mangroves, and inland parts are dominated by brackish or freshwater species. Our results showed that: (1) despite rising sea levels, these low-lying islands significantly increased in area; (2) all of these islands had significant mangrove expansion, and the landward part of expansion led to the replacement of inland non-mangrove habitats; (3) there was a positive relationship between the increase of island area and mangrove expansion in these islands; (4) without the mangrove expansion, simulations showed that all of the islands had decreased areas by 2014 compared with that in 1953. On the basis of our spatial analyses and previous field studies in our study areas, these islands showed resilience to inundation and the mangrove expansion contributed to processes stabilizing these islands under SLR. Meanwhile, the mangrove expansion were partly at the expense of the habitats previously covered by non-mangrove species, thus potentially leading to a loss of plant diversity. Therefore, the mangrove expansion increased unhelpful resilience to maintain islands in a degraded state losing biodiversity, which should be considered in conservation accounting for future SLR. Moreover, the unhelpful resilience can be monitored by remote sensing based indicators, such as island area.
San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast of North America, is heavily encroached by a metropolitan region with over 7 million inhabitants. Urban development and infrastructure, much of which built over landfill and at the cost of former baylands, were placed at very low elevations. Sea level rise (SLR) poses a formidable challenge to these highly exposed urban areas and already stressed natural systems.
“Green”, or ecosystem-based, adaptation is already on the way around the Bay. Large scale wetland restoration projects have already been concluded, and further action now often requires articulation with the reinforcement of flood defense structures, given the level of urban encroachment. While levee setback, or removal, would provide greater environmental benefit, the need to protect urban areas and infrastructure has led to the trial of ingenious solutions for promoting wetland resilience while upgrading the level of protection provided by levees.
We analyzed the region’s environmental governance and planning structure, through direct observation, interviews with stakeholders, and study of planning documents and projects. We present two examples where actual implementation of SLR adaptation has led, or may lead to, the need to revise standards and practices or require uneasy choices between conflicting public interests.
Among the region’s stakeholders, there is an increasing awareness of the risks related to SLR, but the institutional arrangements are complex, and communication between the different public agencies/departments is not always as streamlined as it could be. Some agencies and departments need to adapt their procedures in order to remove institutional barriers to adaptation, but path dependence is an obstacle. There is evidence that more frank and regular communication between public actors is needed. It also emphasizes the benefits of a coordination of efforts and strategies, something that was eroded in the transition from central-government-led policies to a new paradigm of local-based adaptive governance.
The response of coastal wetlands to sea-level rise during the twenty-first century remains uncertain. Global-scale projections suggest that between 20 and 90 per cent (for low and high sea-level rise scenarios, respectively) of the present-day coastal wetland area will be lost, which will in turn result in the loss of biodiversity and highly valued ecosystem services1,2,3. These projections do not necessarily take into account all essential geomorphological4,5,6,7 and socio-economic system feedbacks8. Here we present an integrated global modelling approach that considers both the ability of coastal wetlands to build up vertically by sediment accretion, and the accommodation space, namely, the vertical and lateral space available for fine sediments to accumulate and be colonized by wetland vegetation. We use this approach to assess global-scale changes in coastal wetland area in response to global sea-level rise and anthropogenic coastal occupation during the twenty-first century. On the basis of our simulations, we find that, globally, rather than losses, wetland gains of up to 60 per cent of the current area are possible, if more than 37 per cent (our upper estimate for current accommodation space) of coastal wetlands have sufficient accommodation space, and sediment supply remains at present levels. In contrast to previous studies1,2,3, we project that until 2100, the loss of global coastal wetland area will range between 0 and 30 per cent, assuming no further accommodation space in addition to current levels. Our simulations suggest that the resilience of global wetlands is primarily driven by the availability of accommodation space, which is strongly influenced by the building of anthropogenic infrastructure in the coastal zone and such infrastructure is expected to change over the twenty-first century. Rather than being an inevitable consequence of global sea-level rise, our findings indicate that large-scale loss of coastal wetlands might be avoidable, if sufficient additional accommodation space can be created through careful nature-based adaptation solutions to coastal management.
Prioritization of marsh-management strategies is a difficult task as it requires a manager to evaluate the relative benefits of each strategy given uncertainty in future sea-level rise and in dynamic marsh response. A modeling framework to evaluate the costs and benefits of management strategies while accounting for both of these uncertainties has been developed. The base data for the tool are high-resolution uncertainty-analysis results from the SLAMM (Sea-Level Affecting Marshes Model) under different adaptive-management strategies. These results are combined with an ecosystem-valuation assessment from stakeholders. The SLAMM results and stakeholder values are linked together using “utility functions” that characterize the relationship between stakeholder values and geometric metrics such as “marsh area,” marsh edge,” or “marsh width.” The expected-value of each site’s ecosystem benefits can then be calculated and compared using estimated costs for each strategy. Estimates of optimal marsh-management strategies may then be produced, maximizing the “ecosystem benefits per estimated costs” ratio.
The evolution of coastal and transitional environments depends upon the interplay of human activities and natural drivers, two factors that are strongly connected and many times conflicting. The urge for efficient tools for characterising and predicting the behaviour of such systems is nowadays particularly pressing, especially under the effects of a changing climate, and requires a deeper understanding of the connections among different drivers and different scales. To this aim, the present paper reviews the results of a set of interdisciplinary and coordinated experiences carried out in the Adriatic Sea (north-eastern Mediterranean region), discussing state-of-the art methods for coastal dynamics assessment and monitoring, and suggests strategies towards a more efficient coastal management. Coupled with detailed geomorphological information, the methodologies currently available for evaluating the different components of relative sea level rise facilitate a first identification of the flooding hazard in coastal areas, providing a fundamental element for the prioritization and identification of the sustainability of possible interventions and policies. In addition, hydro- and morpho-dynamic models are achieving significant advances in terms of spatial resolution and physical insight, also in a climatological context, improving the description of the interactions between meteo-oceanographic processes at the regional scale to coastal dynamics at the local scale. We point out that a coordinated use of the described tools should be promptly promoted in the design of survey and monitoring activities as well as in the exploitation of already collected data. Moreover, expected benefits from this strategy include the production of services and infrastructures for coastal protection with a focus on short-term forecast and rapid response, enabling the implementation of an event-oriented sampling strategy.